In the Zone

Of the Zone I mean.
You’ve heard about it over and over, but here is the best description I’ve read (Thanks Rands!):

Let’s talk about the Zone once more.
You’re either sitting down with your computer to futz around with something or you’re attempting to get in the Zone. This is that magical place where you’ve managed to fit the entire context of your current project in your head. With all this content in there, you can perform superhuman acts of productivity and creativity because you have the complete problem space at your mental disposal.

That’s it.
If you can claw your way past every email demanding attention, every web site (including mine!), every self-inflicted attention wound, you can load up all of the problem in your head and do really good work. But it’s all, or nothing. One damn call, one little growl, and the cathedral in your mind comes crashing down before you can actualize it into something external to you.
Oh, and don’t forget that little red devil slyly whispering into your ear! “You’ll never do it, you’re worthless, look at all those people being written up in TechCrunch. You’re not them! It’s not worth it, and you can’t do it. Go back. Give up.” That’s the voice of your lizard brain (see Seth Godin & Daniel Pink for details).
So it comes down to this: How are you going to repeatedly and deliberately get into the zone? Please don’t give me that crap about waiting for inspiration. This is about perspiration, about making real value.
Here’s a tip: make it as automatic as merging onto a freeway – you do it exactly the same way each time.
One more tip: You can “store” a Zone, go do other things, and reopen that Zone and pick up right where you left off, with minimal effort. But you need to at least power up and then power down that zone once each day to keep it fresh. Stored Zones (whether they’re a novel, a codebase, or all the moving parts you need to do a really awesome WordPress membership site) start to stink like dead fish in a day. Then you have to throw them out and start all over.


  1. I have a belief. I believe that it isn’t the amount of mental RAM or speed of your cognitive processor that is important, it is the efficiency of your abstraction algorithm and your symbolic retrieval system. It is your ability to decompose a problem into composable components with well defined interface points and context switch between them. It is knowing the whole system well enough to bring one piece into all mind focus while letting the others fade into the background without disappearing altogether (think Aero Flip or other UI task switcher).
    Shrink your Zone by using efficient internal algorithms and (as mentioned above) by making it repeatable.

    • Bob Walsh Reply

      Good point Larry, but two niggles: we all have about the same amount of RAM in our heads of the same speed.(of course IMO it won’t be long before medical tech – drugs – changes this)
      More importantly while there’s a place for reducing a problem to components, there’s an equally important place for intuitively thinking about the whole problem. Industrialism fostered the former; the Internet the latter.

  2. Yes, I agree that most people are gifted with basically the same abilities, it is all in how we use them. I believe that I can do a better job of ‘proving’ my point about thought structure and cognitive algorithms with a more concrete example.
    Multiply XXXII by XXXII. How about multiply thirty-two by thirty-two? What about:
    x 32
    And lastly, multiply 2^5 by 2^5. The answer: 2^10 (1024) is easy when the problem is stated in the correct form. In programming, we use Patterns for structure, and objects for abstractions. It is easier to understand within electronics, where integrated circuits replace large structures with tiny chips.
    I completely agree with “complete problem space at your mental disposal” as a definition for being in the Zone, I just choose to simplify my problem space prior to trying to visualize it.

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